How to Help Your Helper Help You


Subject Matter Experts, better known as SMEs, are a well-known and often-feared creature in the instructional design universe.  Most of us are not both an instructional designer and an expert in our course’s topic, so we need an expert.  Someone who not only knows the material, but has the topic fully organized and stored in his or her brain, complete with data from years and years of successes and failures.  But this means you have to invite someone onto your team who comes from a very different world.

Now, experts are great to have.  They have content at their fingertips, they can review the course for accuracy, and they can draw real-life scenarios from their vast memory.  But there is a dark side.  Or perhaps several dark sides.  I believe the dark sides and light sides are fairly equal, but there are many of them.  So everyone imagine one of those old-fashioned salt-and-pepper soccer balls, and let’s move on.

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Dark Side One:  Your SME is not an Instructional Designer.

Yes, in their many years of expertise, they’ve led many a PowerPoint-centric training session.  The training sessions went just fine.  They feel like people learned things.  But expertise in a subject does not equal expertise in how to build an effective and engaging course on the topic.  These are two completely different and equally important fields of expertise.

You’ve probably heard a few of these gems:

“I’ve worked hard on my PowerPoint, so you can just use that.”

“Let’s slap a quiz on the end and call it a day!”

“I’ll speak for about an hour, and that should take care of it.  It’s what I always do.”

Dark Side Two:  Your SME isn’t used to working with people in different fields.

One side effect of being an expert is that you often spend a lot of time working with other experts like themselves.  Engineers work with engineers.  Salespeople work with salespeople.  Marketers work with marketers.  They are surrounded by people with similar thought processes, similar experiences, and similar perspectives.  Even if their peers do challenge them, they may not be used to someone so different doing the challenging.  A technical person is likely to discuss why something technical is correct or incorrect, but have never discussed techniques for making learning stick. It’s bound to be a surprise.

Ever heard these?

“These bullet points are from a book by foremost expert in the field.”

“This is exactly how I learned it.  Why wouldn’t it work?”

“Surely we don’t need to waste time filling out a form about learning goals.  I know what people need to learn.”

Dark Side Three:  SMEs have their own job to do.

They don’t have time for you.  I hear it.  I’m sure you hear it.  I understand.  They don’t exactly have hours of time blocked off to help an instructional designer build a class.

I’m sure these statements ring a bell:

“I really don’t have that kind of time this week.”

“I really don’t have that kind of time next week, either.”

“Can’t I just send you my PowerPoint?”

The Plan

So what do you do about these and other challenges that come with working with SMEs?  Like any partnership, communication is key.  Here are my top tips for an effective Expert/Designer relationship (or any relationship, for that matter):

  1.  Understand everyone’s motivations.  Your very first conversation should be about why a course needs to be made.  Did an executive ask you to work on it?  Why?  Did the expert come up with the idea?  Why?  Did you, the educator, determine there was a need?  What was it?  Do you both have the same motivations to make the course successful?  Or are they different, but equally important?  Maybe there’s not a good reason after all, in which case, ditch the project and don’t look back.  But if there is, the rest of your discussions will be more meaningful knowing why you both care about the project.
  2. Set clear expectations.  Share your expectations, listen to your SME’s.  Make sure your SME knows how much time you’ll need, what that time will entail, what content you expect them to bring, and in what form.  Provide a timeline including project goals and objectives.  And, just as critically, you must be sure that you understand if your SME can commit to all of your hopes, or if some compromises must be made.  This will be a negotiation.  Make concessions as much as you can without hurting the project.  Bring up your motivations and those of your SMEs if needed.  By the end of the conversation, there should be no confusion about what’s going to happen.
  3. Appreciate your SME’s contributions.  Even if some of them seem ridiculous from your point of view.  Thank them for bringing good content.  Acknowledge that they’re working hard to come up with ideas.  Point out they good aspect of whatever suggestion they made.  Then move on to steps 4 and 5.
  4. Question, question, question.  Even though you have a strong vision for what the course will look like, ask what your SME has in mind.  Even though you know you don’t have the budget or desire to make a live-action video, ask what your SME would hope to achieve with it.  Think you already understand the content?  Restate it and ask if you had it right.  You don’t learn anything by telling.  You also don’t make people feel like you care about their opinion by telling.
  5. Challenge. If your SME still insists on dull bullet points, a long lecture, or even just sending you your PowerPoint and running, there comes a point when you must challenge.  Yes, you could come across as rude or pushy.  But, if you’ve already completed all of the previous steps and keep your tone positive, you almost certainly won’t.  And if you don’t challenge, you’ll wind up with a course that is less than what it could be.  Isn’t it worth the risk?
  6. Give credit.  This should really be 3(a), but it’s still important.  Making sure your SMEs contributions are recognized is not only the nice thing to do, but it builds a strong foundation for the next time you need their help.

Remember: you and your SME need each other.  Take the opportunity to remember that working as a team will make sure everyone reaches their goals.

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This week’s Articulate Challenge asked us to create a quiz about Instructional Design concepts.  Check out my contribution, all about working with SMEs.

A screenshot from "On the Road with SMEs"

A screenshot from “On the Road with SMEs”

Oh, is there some big soccer game going on right now?  I didn’t know.

On E-Learning and Elevator Buttons

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Okay, so what do e-learning and elevator buttons have to do with each other?

Not much.

Kidding.  Probably a couple of things.  But I’m talking about feedback.

In Human Factors Engineering (one of my favorite classes in college), I learned about the complexities of elevator buttons.  It wasn’t a simple interaction where you pushed a button and something happened.  In fact, something much more magical happens: feedback.  Ever pushed the ‘Up’ button, and nothing happened?  Nothing lit up, no LED display indicated a car was coming your way, not even a measly ‘ding!’ to soothe your soul.  What did you do?  Probably pushed the button incessantly until the doors opened.  Because you didn’t get any feedback.  That simple red light in the center of the ‘Up’ button that glows after you push it gives you peace of mind, allows you to wait calmly for the next car, and prevents whatever disaster might ensue if the ‘Up’ button were to overheat.  That red light doesn’t do a thing to the elevator: the cars behave the same whether there’s a little red light or not.  You, the user, behave differently.

The fable of the little red elevator light serves us well when developing e-learning, or any type of learning.  There is no more important teaching tool than feedback.  Imagine a traditional classroom setting where you turned in your homework, quizzes, and test, and never saw your grade.  You raised your hand to answer, and the teacher just blinked and moved on.  I realize that I may be describing some real life experiences here, but let’s push past the pain and realize just how critical it is to give meaningful, timely feedback.

I’ll admit it, creating feedback slides is possibly my least favorite part of e-learning development.  Every slide becomes three or four.  And using the stock “Right! You selected the correct response!” slide is about as effective as blinking at your students.

So here are 3 rules for effective feedback:

  1.  Make it frequent.  For the most part, every decision a student makes should involve feedback.  If you are re-creating a scenario where there is no feedback in real life (trying to think of an example but failing…), I suppose you could wait until the end, but, really, at least some feedback along the way makes a big difference.
  2. Make it meaningful.  Not just ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  How could they do better next time?  What cues did they miss?  What pro tips did they forget?  Failing is a great way to learn, but failing over and over is a great way to incite rage.
  3. Make it unique.  Again, I cringe when I see the generic feedback boxes that your software spits out.  At the very least, make the slide match the rest of your course stylistically.  Even better, make the feedback visual or even entertaining.  Display an image, a chart, or dialog from a character that illustrates the message rather than simply spewing facts.

And as you’re following those rules, remember that they can apply to more than one type of feedback.  Sometimes simple and quick is all you need:

SimpleFeedbackIncorrectRealistic or even conversational feedback really helps the message hit home:

Conversational feedback ups the reality factor

Conversational feedback ups the reality factor

In fact, you don’t need a talking character to  bring the scenario to life.  A well-written script can be an educational choose-your-own-adventure story.  This has the added bonus of awarding stars depending on how well you answer (not just right or wrong, but somewhere in between):

Completely text-based scenarios can beat pictures talking to you

Completely text-based scenarios can beat pictures talking to you

Progress meters let the user know how far they’ve gotten:

A simple progress matching the course style.

A simple progress matching the course style.


Even a map can be used to track progress and give the student direction at the same time:

This map was inspired by a template by Jackie Van Nice

This map was inspired by a template by Jackie Van Nice










Feedback makes the world go ’round.  You don’t participate in a conversation by staring at your shoes.  You don’t manage a team by meeting with them once a year.  (You don’t, right?)  So don’t skimp on the feedback.  Learning is a conversation.  Make it meaningful.

Bonus:  Many of this week’s examples were from a demo a created for the Weekly Articulate Challenge.  We were to use a template by the talented Jackie Van Nice and make it our own.  Here’s what I made.

Business Sense

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My guess is that, if you found yourself in the development and education world somehow, you were probably a good student in school.  It pained you see see anything other than an ‘A’ on a paper.  Every red-ink-pen stroke was an injury.  You had strong feelings about group projects and their impact on the quality of your work.

Sound familiar?  That probably means that many of those character traits that served you well in high school and college have continued to serve you well in your professional life; you’re hardworking, you set high standards for yourself, you don’t quit until it’s done.

What many of us “good students” may not realize is that part of that “good student” mentality may be hurting us as adults.  You can call it perfectionism.  You can call it high attention to detail.  You can say your quality standards are higher than others.  But what it’s doing is sapping your time, energy and money.

Picture yourself working on a creative project.  You work and work, refining, perfecting, maybe even scrapping and starting over once or twice.  You might keep working, perhaps staying up all night, until your deadline arrives and you must turn it in.  You feel pretty good about yourself, right?  You’ve done everything you can to make that project as good as it can be.  You’re exhausted, but it’s a good exhausted.

Now picture that project in a work setting.  Whether you’re hourly, salaried, billing a client, or simply building your portfolio, you’ve just given everything you’ve got to make that project perfect.  You still might feel pretty good about the quality of your work and the quantity of effort you poured into it.

But now there’s another side to the coin.  Did you just spend 16 hours on a project that would have been good enough at 8? Or even quite good at 10?

Business folk have all kinds of terms for this phenomenon.  Economist talk about diminishing return on investment.  Salespeople recognize the difference between pay-time and no-pay-time.  CEOs talk about revenue drivers versus cost centers.

Good students only talk about how “good” something is, equating “goodness” to how much effort is put in.  Good business people need to adjust that equation.  It’s not linear – it’s not true that the more time you put into something, the better it gets.  Instead, think about the law of diminishing returns.  There comes a point in every project where all the criteria for “good work” are met: it’s neat, accurate, it does what it says it’s going to do.  If you keep working on it, you can improve it.  Perhaps this font is just slightly artsier than that one.  Perhaps you could fancy up a graphic or provide user feedback in four ways instead of three.  But the value you get out of the time you put in, if you get any, is negligible.

Here are my four laws that help me abide by the law of diminishing returns:

  1. Make a solid project plan, with specific goals and objectives.  Are all the objectives met?  Great.  It’s time to call it done.
  2. Know how long each step should take, and stick to it.  Writing a first draft?  By the end of today, send it away for feedback, no  matter how rough it is.  Creating a small icon for an e-course?  If you’re not on to the next thing in thirty minutes, use it as-is or do without.  This step will require a solid foundation: spend a few weeks or a month logging your time, and you’ll quickly get a feel for how long each task is taking.
  3. Know your hourly rate.  You probably know what you earn per hour.  If not, calculate an average right now.  That’s a real number you need to hold in your head when you think about how you spend an hour.  But then, start rounding it up as you consider benefits, the other projects you could be working on if you’d finished this one,  and the time you could be spending on real life, with friends, family, or yourself, if you were done for the day.  One hour is pretty pricey, right?
  4. Know the monetary value of what you want to do.  The next time you consider going above and beyond the call of duty, as yourself: what would I pay for the added feature?  We’re not talking about money coming out of some corporate fund for things that are neat.  We’re talking about your own hard-earned cash. Would you spend fifty dollars on a button with a slightly cleaner design?  Didn’t think so.  Move along.

A lot of people don’t like being told they can’t continue to put time into a project they are passionate about.  They tend to think more is more, any anyone who tells them differently is a fun-hating, corporate bean-counter who is probably dead inside.  And this desire to make things better applies to a wide range of people, whether we like to put them in “creative-type” buckets or “perfectionist” pigeon-holes, or some other category.  Most of us just don’t want to put our name on something that’s not as great as they way we imagined it.  I know, I struggle with this all the time.

So let’s think of it another way: let’s do something good, release it out into the world, and move on to another good thing.  Otherwise, we’ll spend all our time on one thing that’s never quite good enough.

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All You Need is PowerPoint


Not everyone has a budget for Adobe Illustrator (at least not a legal version).  Or Photoshop.  Or Corel Draw, or any other advanced, professional, money-costing chunk of software out there.  I certainly don’t.  I did consider making an argument for a capital investment at one point.  I mean, there are times when you can’t get by without a decent image, especially in technical training.  And snapping photos of things with your cell phone isn’t super classy.  And stealing images from the internet isn’t recommended.  But I quickly learned that, in just about every circumstance, I could not only make do with what I had, I could make a ton of good, effective content with what I had.

Now, maybe someday I’ll have need for some real design software.  I kind of hope I do.  But for now, I can do almost anything I want with a lovely bit of programming called PowerPoint.  Now, PowerPoint has its dissenters.  More than a few.  And I get that.  But, have you ever just played with PowerPoint?  It can do some amazing things quickly and easily.  And, particularly in a time when flat design is the thing, it can produce some slick results.

I’ve found a surprising number of opportunities to develop my PowerPoint design skills since I learned many of it’s wonders from Tom Kuhlmann.  For instance, I recently needed graphics related to shipping and receiving for an e-course I was building.  Take a moment to imagine the quantity of shipping-and-receiving related graphic content that is available, with a modern and unified look, for a low price, on the internet.  Exactly.  So, I grabbed what disparate images I could (photos, illustrations, cheesy clip art), pasted then in PowerPoint, and used them as inspiration for some clean, graphic icons that fit the look of my course perfectly.

Graphics created in PowerPointAnother fun adventure started with a recent E-Learning Challenge from Articulate’s community site.  The challenge set me on a slap-dash attempt at creating technical graphics in the space of the few hours I could carve out of my week.  My answer?  PowerPoint.

The Goal:  Create a step graphics interaction.  Users click through a set of graphics in order to learn a multi-step process.

My Chosen Topic:  Butterfly valve repair.  Butterfly valves are simple pieces of equipment, found in sanitary and non-sanitary industries alike.  It should be noted that I work in the sanitary process industry, so I often strive to teach people about some very specific pieces of equipment used in the manufacture of food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and the like.  We talk about valves A LOT.

The Plus Side:  Butterfly valves are just about the simplest valve to repair.

The Down Side:  The only images I had were line drawings from an operator’s manual from 1987 that had been photocopied and scanned about a thousand times.  I mean, that’s a look, but not the look I was going for.

My Method:  Shapes.  Lots of shapes.  I inserted a snip of the grainy line drawing I needed to recreate into a blank slide in PowerPoint.  I started inserting shapes: nothing fancy, just a lot of rectangles and triangles and circles.  I made prodigious use of the “Merge Shapes” tool to turn the basic shapes into the geometry of a butterfly valve.  If I had spent a little more time on it, I would have used the “Align” tool a little more (I aimed for perfectly symmetrical, I got almost perfect).  For efficiency and style, I kept the shape format simple with a solid fill and dark outline.  I could have gone crazy trying to replicate the look of stainless steel.  But if you’ve ever had the pleasure of squinting at blurry snapshots of stainless steel valves in front of a stainless steel background, you’ll find the clarity and contrast refreshing.

Step Graphics Screen ShotThe step graphic interaction itself is not sophisticated in the least, but it does the trick.  The result is a bit rough, but it is more than ready to go to work enlightening anyone who has never had the opportunity to tear into a butterfly valve.  My preferred method for teaching a topic like valve maintenance is and always will be hands-on.  But when you just can’t put your hands on a valve, this’ll do.

Check out the Butterfly Valve Repair Step Graphics Interaction here.

I encourage you to open up PowerPoint and see what it can do for you.  Insert a picture and see what you can come up with using the standard drawing tools: Remove Background, Crop, Recolor, and so on.  It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it gets the job done.  Doesn’t get much better than that.  But, as with just about everything, learning what you can do is the best part.

And So It Begins

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When I decided to become an engineer, I though that meant that I was destined for a life of graphing paper, dust and grime, steel and AutoCAD.  I never thought I’d want to showcase my designs on a public blog.  Nevermind that I decided I’d be an engineer in eighth grade, and I’m pretty sure blogs hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought I had no particular creative talent, aside from a little creative writing.

But life is funny, and now instructional design is a hugepart of my job — a job I never imagined myself in, and is incredible perfect for me.  So, thanks, life.  Every day I get to learn new things in a craft that melds the techical dust-and-steel side of me with my creative ink-and-paper side.  With a dose of the extremetly analytical drive-my-husband-crazy-with-detail side thrown in for fun.

So this is my journey.  I’ll have to catch you up; I’m about a year in.  In February of 2014, I was co-Inside Sales Manager (also a title I never dreamed I’d have when I was 14), and wasn’t aware that Instructional Design was a thing.  But then, a VP and mentor, and soon-to-become-boss, approached me with the idea of becoming the Director of Employee Development and Continuous Improvement.  It was a new position.  I’d be taking the employee development tasks that she started out of nothing at our company and making it a full-time job.  I had a lot to learn.

So, I started noodling around with Articulate Storyline.  I started reading Cathy Moore, the Brilliant Blog, and the The Rapid eLearning Blog.  I published a few quizzes and tweaked existing basic courses.  I signed up for classes with Cathy Moore and Tom Kuhlmann,  I attempted to create eCourses using some of the new ideas I’d learned.

Now it’s time to step up my game.

I’m starting this blog not just to showcase my skills, but also to push myself out of my comfort zone.  Put myself out there.  Generate something new and challenging every week.  Test my skills.  I’ll post the results of so new things I’m trying at work, my submissions for the Articulate Weekly Challenge, my ideas, my challenges, and my lessons learned.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the inspiration to keep on trucking on this surprising journey.